Iowa homes at higher risk for elevated radon levels
It’s silent. It’s invisible. It sneaks into homes, often through basements, and kills hundreds of Iowans each year. But it’s not some mythical predator; it’s a gas.
As uranium deposits in the soil breakdown, they produce radon. When inhaled, particles of the colorless, odorless, tasteless gas continue their radioactive decay, which can cause lung cancer and other health problems.
January is National Radon Action Month.
William Field, a University of Iowa Public Health professor who specializes in radon, said the gas is the leading environmental cause of cancer death in the United States.
“Most homes are not built radon resistant,” Field said. “It can move into the home through cracks in the foundation.”
Dr. Joseph Merchant, an oncologist with the McFarland Clinic and Marshalltown Medical & Surgical Center, said he has no doubt that many non-smokers who develop lung cancer do so because of radon exposure.
“It’s a hard thing to provide,” he said. “There is no symptom that comes from radon exposure. It has its effects silently.”
Iowa homes have the highest incidence of radon with roughly seven out of 10 homes having levels higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of four picouries per liter of air. Nearly 21,000 people die each year in the U.S. from lung cancer caused by radon, according to the EPA.
“There is no way to perceive it,” Field said. “It’s not like getting hit by a car it’s hard to make those linkages if it were purple, people would be lining up to get rid of it.”
Karyn Forke, a radon specialist with AmeriServ, a radon mitigation company in Bondurant, said, from what she sees, the state trend holds true in Marshalltown and other surrounding areas.
While one home might be virtually free of radon, its neighbor could have dangerously high levels, Forke said. Every home is different. And since the gas doesn’t have any telltale signs, detecting it can be difficult.
“Radon is in every single home,” Forke said. “The only way you are going to know what the level is, is to get it tested.”
Radon test kits are available at many hardware stores for about $10. The person conducting the test places the kit on the lowest livable level of the home, usually in the basement, and leaves it for there for anywhere from two to 14 days, depending on the kit.
The American Lung Association, which oversees the Iowa Radon Hotline, recommends using two test kits and placing them four inches apart. Then, the kit is sent into a lab, which cost another $25 to $35, to get the results.
The EPA recommends retesting your home every two years.
Forke said companies like hers also offer a continuous radon monitor that produces a computer-generated readout of radon levels each hour. That monitor costs $125. AmeriServe and companies like it also offer mitigation services, which entails installing a network of PVC pipes and a ventilation fan to eliminate the radon, for between $1,500 and $1,800.
As part of Marshall County’s Healthy Homes grant, city housing staff has purchased radon test kits for the 125 homes covered under the grant from Lynn County Public Health, said Joyce Brown, lead program manager with the Marshalltown Housing Department.
City staff gives the residents whose home has been tested the results of the radon test, but the grant does not cover the cost of mitigation.
“If they do want to get it taken care of, they have [the report] so they know what their limits are,” Brown said.
Iowa law requires that daycares be tested for radon every two years, but last year Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, began lobbying for the End Radon in Schools Act, which calls for, among other things, mandatory testing for schools. Braley and representatives from the Radon Coalition and the American Cancer Society will be at the State Capitol in Des Moines Monday to renew the effort.
Jeff Giertz, a spokesperson for Braley, said the Congressman feels strongly about radon mitigation because it is a threat to the public health of Iowans that often doesn’t get a lot of attention. The legislation would create a federal grant program to help schools cover the cost of radon detection and mitigation.
“Many people don’t realize how big the threat from radon gas is here in Iowa,” Braley said via email. “That’s why it critical we do more to ensure students, teachers and school employees are protected from harmful levels of this dangerous gas.”
Giertz said Braley anticipates the bill, which was originally introduced in September but saw no action, will draw bipartisan support.
Lung cancer caused by radon kills roughly 400 people each year in Iowa, according to the EPA.
Relative to its population, Iowa has the highest death rate from radon-related cancer.
“If there was any other event that you found out 400 people were dying a year from something preventable, there would be public outcry,” Field said.